Terra Nullius

History Essay on Terra Nullius Terra Nullius, was how Cook described Australia and how it was officially viewed until the last 20 or 30 years of Australia’s history. In 1788 the First Fleet arrived, after this, the British took over all of the land in sight without any thought to its original ownership. They forbade the fact that there were Aboriginals in Australia and they declared it empty. Legally this meant that no one lived on the land and because of that no one could claim rights of it under English law.

This was not what had happened in other countries that Britain had colonised – in Canada and New Zealand treaties were signed with the Indigenous people in order to transfer over the land. Though these treaties were very biased towards the British and the Indigenous peoples of those countries were not treated any better than the Aborigines were. The fact that treaties existed meant that there was no such Terra Nullius as shown in Australia. In English law the Aboriginals didn’t exist, and therefore their right to the land in Australia did not exist either.

The removal of land from the Aboriginal peoples started in 1788 and continued through the frontier war, and the setting up of the reserves a hundred years later. When the Indigenous people were given reserve lands they had been told it would be theirs to keep, but by the 1960s the Commonwealth government had simply reclaimed much of the land for housing and commercial projects such as mining and agricultural use. Indigenous protests over how reserve land was managed and how it was being taken away became more and more frequent, until in the 1960s it erupted into a country wide movement for land rights.

Not only did the Indigenous population of Australia want to preserve the land they already had, but they wanted to be recognised as the legal owners of their traditional lands so that no one, not even the government could take them away in the future. In 1966, at least 200 Aborigines left the cattle station in the Northern Territory. They were protesting about their living and working conditions on the massive cattle station. Part of the tribe had been used as virtual slave labor for the British company Vesteys since they had been established at Wave Hill.

Instead of continuing to accept the low wages and terrible housing they walked off the station and set up camp at a nearby creek. Their strike lasted for over nine years and was a large role-model for other strikes and walkouts on big cattle stations. This large action was initially about low wages and poor living and working conditions, but by the next year it developed into a Terra Nullius type campaign. The Wave Hill station was situated on land that the Aborigines had lived on for thousands of years before Vesteys had even been established, and even still they were denied any rights as to how that land was used.

They were now campaigning to have their traditional, sacred lands returned to them. The Aboriginals eventually won their fight and in 1975 after one of the longest campaigns ever, their lands were officially given back to them by the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. It was in the early 1970s, the treatment of the Aborigines came to the front of importance, with key help from the Labor government. The main focus of the demonstration was about land rights and the return of land to its traditional owners with compensation for what had been done to the land.

Strikes on farms and stations around the country continued to make headlines in Australia, but the land rights campaign was about to make headlines around the world. In 1972 the Indigenous protest movement took another new turn. An Indigenous embassy appeared outside Old Parliament House in Canberra. The Aboriginal Embassy was a group of tents erected in one afternoon by four Aboriginal activists. Earlier that day the Prime Minister William McMahon had announced his government would never grant land rights to the Aboriginals as it would ‘threaten the tenure of every Australian’.

McMahon said they would be allowed to lease (rent) land off the government (but only if it was for a project that would make money) and that mining would continue on Indigenous land. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy helped focus attention on the land rights issue – both in Australia and all over the world. It became a powerful icon of Indigenous activism and solidarity. The Aboriginal flag also made its first international appearance when it was flown over the Embassy in 1972. Another important symbol of the protest movement, it was created in 1971 by Indigenous artist Harold Thomas.

The black in the flag represents the colour of their skin, the red represents both the blood that has been spilt and the colour of the land, and the yellow circle is the sun that gives life and brings renewal. The government ordered the police to remove the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, but it was put straight back up again. The men who started the protest were joined by Aboriginal people from all over the country; they helped rebuild the Embassy when it was torn down by the police. It stood for over six months in 1972 as symbol of the protest movement and has made reappearances in Canberra over the years during times of protest. Overall the effects of Terra Nullius on Australia have affected the whole country and its government. Through the huge protests in the late decades which formed from long and weary ones in the earlier decades to governments being persuaded. These have all had there own affect on the country and combined to rid of the disrespect of the native Australians – the Aborigines.

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